Most of the discussion on the $24.8 million bond referendum proposed by the School District of the Chathams has focused on the new Performing Arts Center – rightly so, since its $10.8 million price tag would be nearly half of the referendum’s total cost.  

The skepticism by many in the public is richly deserved. More seats in an auditorium will not make for a better performing arts program, especially when the new auditorium will be in a new building outside the Middle School, far away from the High School.  And since everyone agrees that the real problems are aging auditoriums at both the High School and Middle School, and a lack of backstage space for dressing rooms and scenery storage, why not spend a fraction of $10.8 million to address these problems?

But while much attention has been focused on the new Performing Arts Center, much less has been said about the proposed re-use of the existing Middle School auditorium. The two issues are inter-twined because if the re-use of the existing auditorium space does not make sense both educationally and financially, then construction of a new Performing Arts Center on the lawn outside the Middle School becomes even more misguided.

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According to the proposed referendum, half of the space inside the existing Middle School auditorium would be converted to the district’s administrative offices.  The sloping floor would be leveled. The soaring ceiling – which is now approximately two stories high over the auditorium and three-stories over the stage – would be hidden behind a one-story dropped ceiling. There are no plans for any windows, either in the administrative offices or in the four new science and technology labs which are proposed for the other half of the former auditorium’s floor space.  Students and district staff would have no natural light. Two thirds of the volume inside the existing auditorium would be hidden and abandoned above the dropped ceiling, raising significant maintenance and safety concerns. 

Is this really the best we can do?

The Board of Education has repeatedly said that moving the district offices will save $85,000-$100,000 per year – based on current spending of $52,000 to rent space in the township Municipal Building, $24,000 for a high-speed internet connection from the district offices to the school network, and assorted smaller expenses. 

But the school board fails to mention that constructing new district offices at the Middle School will cost approximately $1 million. Interest payments on the 20-year bond and maintenance costs over 20 years could easily bring the total cost of the new offices to $2 million. And $2 million over 20 years is an expense of $100,000 a year, more than eliminating the alleged $85K-$100K annual savings. 

But wait, it gets worse.

Chatham Township will lose the $52,000 rent the school district currently pays for its office space at the Municipal Building. This is money that goes toward the municipal budget, and its loss means that Chatham Township taxpayers will have to pay $52,000 more each year to make up the shortfall. Admittedly, it’s not the responsibility of the school district to subsidize the township’s municipal budget. But the taxes for both the municipal and school district budgets come from the same taxpayers, and for the Board of Education to claim an $85K-$100K “savings” when the township portion of its taxpayers will be hit with a $52,000 expense is at best misleading.

But wait, it could get even worse.

The Board of Education will, in fact, have a “savings” in the sense that $85K-$100K from its operating budget will be transferred to bonded debt if the referendum passes and the new offices are built. Since the operating budget has a state-imposed cap, this transfer gives the school district the opportunity to spend an additional $85K-$100K every year on operations without exceeding the cap. If future Boards of Education succumb to this temptation and spend up to the cap, then township and borough taxpayers will see their taxes increase by $85K-$100K a year.

Instead of the $85K-$100K “savings” claimed by the Board of Education, township taxpayers will see the certainty of a $52,000 annual tax increase, and both the borough and township taxpayers will almost certainly share an additional $85K-$100K tax increase due to the construction of new administrative offices.

There are valuable and necessary projects within the $24.8 million bond referendum.  The Middle School needs STEM classrooms. Both the High School and Middle School auditoriums desperately need renovations. The elementary schools appear to legitimately need classroom space. And the Performing Arts program definitely deserves investment.

But the Board of Education has insisted on packaging the entire $24.8 million bond referendum as a single question when it goes to the voters on April 21, and there are major portions – including the re-use of the existing Middle School auditorium – which simply don’t make sense. The referendum should not be approved until it truly is the best we can do.

Note. Michael Kelly is a member of the Chatham Township Committee and is the retired editor of the Independent Press, however these are his individual opinions and do not reflect the position of any organization or publication.